Trust Your Team, But Take Care of Yourself

Trust Your Team, But Take Care of Yourself January 15, 2018

An insight I’ve gained in dance is that the best dance partners are those you can trust to take care of you – but still don’t put yourself in harm’s way.

My troupe, Indy Tribal, performing in Muncie, IN. Photo by Thomas Dove.
My troupe, Indy Tribal, performing in Muncie, IN. Photo by Thomas Dove.

One of the particular joys – and frustrations – of practicing a dance style that’s a nonverbal communication is the people. But joy and delight win out, as well as hinting at a particular self-care strategy.

Every time I dance American Tribal Style® I have a conversation with my dance partners, using the cue system devised by the dance’s founder, Carolena Nericchio of FatChance BellyDance. We nonverbally indicate which dance move is next, and since the dance language is standardized and fractal, that makes the dance style something you can find practitioners of anywhere to join up and dance with.

But when you’ve really spent time dancing with a group, as I have with my troupe Indy Tribal, you really begin to synchronize and jive. You begin to know who favors which movements and cues, and you also know who has which injuries or limitations to work around.

As the instructor and troupe director, I’ve dedicated countless hours to learning this dance and improving my ability to do it. As someone in my mid-thirties without injuries, I’ve had the luck and training to be able to execute all of the moves without needing to modify them to accommodate for pain, lack of mobility, and so on.

So when I dance with my team, I’m not worried about which cues they’ll throw. I’m not trying to brag, and I know I’m not perfect, but I can follow most of what they toss my way. The flip side is that when I’m the one leading, I have to keep track of who’s dancing with me, and if there are any moves that won’t work for everybody in the formation. That running dialogue might look something like: Okay, my duet partner has a knee issue, so I won’t do level changes on her, and I know she’s been a little wobbly due to said knee so spins are out, wait, we can do 4-count spins but maybe not 8-count spins, because the music’s not terribly fast…

And that means this kind of interaction takes trust. I trust my team to tell me what their limitations are, and they trust me to act accordingly. While I spend a disproportionate amount of time as the leader in this dance, due to how I know the moves I want us drilling at any given time, I’m not the only one who leads. In fact, it’s a point of pride in my troupe that we rotate taking the lead, even though leading used to be super scary back when everyone passed through that newbie dancer phase. Because it is a lot of responsibility to guide your team through the moves, and deliver the cues competently.

What I’ve implicitly trained my dancers to do is to trust their teammates to guide them through the dance, with cues that are easy to follow, and sequences that take care of everybody’s needs. And in the moments where that falls apart – a confusing cue, or a cue that you know you can’t follow without putting yourself at risk – my dancers know to take care of themselves, whether that means stepping out of the formation in the least obtrusive way possible, or holding down the beat for those 8 counts until the move is over and they can leap back into the group. My dancers do this gracefully, smiling the whole time, rather than tossing their hands in the air and shrieking in disappointment.

(so really, you see, this post is less me bragging about myself than about my amazing dance troupe, who are a large chunk of the reason why I came back to Indiana from California in mid 2017)

The life lesson here is that inside our art form, just as in life more generally, you develop relationships with people that build trust. And when you create that trust, when you collaborate with folks, you begin to trust them to take care of you, and only give you what you can handle, and help you recover if it goes poorly. At the same time, you guard your own boundaries, ready to pull out and do whatever self-care you need.

I’ve mentioned spins as a particularly complex dance move. To continue with that example, we often spin with our arms at shoulder height, and our spins have to be calibrated so that we’re all hitting the front spot at the same time, both for visual purposes and so we don’t hit each other going around. The “trust your team” part means that we trust our training and our extensive practice time to keep us together on these spins; the “but take care of yourself” part means that if you think a teammate might accidentally collide with you, you pull your arms in (ideally without dropping posture) to shield yourself from a potential collision.

Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes we bump into each other while dancing, or take a small tumble if we lose our balance, or completely blank out on a given dance move. I ran into someone in a workshop a couple of years ago, knocking her to the ground, and I still feel bad about that.

But what we’re working towards as a group is greater trust that is earned by the time we all put in together practicing, as well as the self-awareness to ultimately be the one responsible for your own safety and experience.

The other realms of life that this applies to are countless: romantic and sexual relationships, coworker relationships, family relationships, and every part of human interaction where shared responsibility is a thing. It wouldn’t, obviously, apply to coercive or abusive dynamics. And there are probably other pieces of advise that help fill in blind spots or gaps left by this one… but I’m pretty fond of this one, given how far it’s gotten me in my beloved dance community.

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